Penalty phase begins in Pennsylvania clergy trial

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UPDATE (Tuesday, Nov. 19)

By Kathy L. Gilbert

SPRING CITY, Pa. (UMNS) — “I cannot go back to being silent. I am now an advocate for LGBT people in the world and in the church,” said the Rev. Frank Schaefer Nov. 19, during the penalty phase of his trial. Schaefer was found guilty by a jury of ordained United Methodists Nov. 18 of violating the church’s law against pastors performing same-sex unions and of disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church. He was asked by the church’s counsel, Rev. Christopher Fisher, if he was willing to repent of violating church law and he replied without hesitation, “I cannot.” When asked if he could promise to never officiate at a same-sex wedding again, he said, “I cannot.” Schaefer performed the same sex wedding of his oldest son Tim in 2007. The son also testified, recalling the struggle he faced with his sexuality as a young teen, including negative messages he heard attending a United Methodist annual conference. “I remember crying and praying every night God take this away from me,” Tim Schaefer said. “I don’t want to go to hell and I don’t want to be a bad person.” He didn’t want to bring shame on his family so he didn’t talk to them. A friend’s mother called his parents to tell them their son was in deep pain and considering suicide. “There was a lot of crying and hugging and my parents held me and told me they loved and supported me.” Today Tim Schaefer is married and living outside of Boston attending a United Methodist church where he said and his partner are loved and accepted. Asking his father to perform his marriage was “the most difficult decision of my life,” he said. But he knew his father would be hurt if he didn’t ask but he also knew his father was putting his job in jeopardy.

The second day of testimony began with Fisher  telling jurors they would hear from witnesses including members of Schaefer’s church and the district superintendent in charge of Schafer’s church. Both counsels plan to present witnesses who will also will give expert thoughts on what kind of penalty he should face. Bishop Alfred Gwinn, presiding officer, said jurors will have to decide what happens after Schaefer’s guilty verdict. The penalty can range from termination of his conference membership and revoking his ordination credentials to suspension for a period of time. Both Schaefer and Jon Boger, the church member who brought charges against him, were sometimes emotional as they testified Nov. 18. Bishop Peggy Johnson, episcopal leader of the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual (regional) Conference started the trial by saying she was praying for God’s grace. “There is pain all around, there is no wonderful solution that will make everyone happy.” The jury returned the guilty verdict at 7:10 p.m. on the opening day of the trial. UPDATE (5:10 p.m. ET)

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

SPRING CITY, Pa. (UMNS)—A jury of ordained United Methodist clergy has found the Rev. Frank Schaefer guilty on both counts of violating his vows as an ordained United Methodist elder not to perform same-sex marriages and disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church. Schaefer, a pastor in the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual (regional) Conference officiated at the same-sex wedding of his son five years ago. A complaint was filed one month before the statute of limitations ran out, and word of the trial became public Sept. 20. Schaefer, pastor of Zion United Methodist Church of Iona in Lebanon, Pa., said he “followed his heart” when his son, Tim, asked him to officiate at his wedding. Schafer pleaded not guilty to the two charges against him. The jury will reconvene at 9 a.m. ET Tuesday, Nov. 19 for the penalty phase of the trial.

By Kathy L. Gilbert and Kelly Martini*

What does the church say

The United Methodist Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, since 1972 has proclaimed the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The book prohibits United Methodist churches from hosting and clergy from performing “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.” The 2012 General Conference, when it met April 24-May 4 in Tampa, Fla., rejected efforts to change that language, including a proposal to say the church was in disagreement about homosexuality. General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, will next convene in 2016. Officiating at same-sex unions is a chargeable offense under the Book of Discipline. Clergy convicted in a church court can face a loss of clergy credentials or lesser penalties. However, church law does not censure those who disagree with church teaching on this matter — only those who actually take actions that violate church law. The Book of Discipline also states that marriage is between a man and a woman.

SPRING CITY, Pa. (UMNS)— The trial of the Rev. Frank Schaefer is under way after four potential jurors were eliminated during jury selection Nov. 18. Thirteen jurors and two alternates have been seated. Schaefer, a pastor in the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual (regional) Conference officiated at the same-sex wedding of his son five years ago. A complaint was filed one month before the statute of limitations ran out, and word of the trial became public Sept. 20. Schaefer, pastor of Zion United Methodist Church of Iona in Lebanon, Pa., said he “followed his heart” when his son, Tim, asked him to officiate at his wedding in 2007. Jurors were asked if they could be open to the facts they would hear in court and whether they had read or heard reports in the news media. This led to the elimination of two of the four potential jurors because they said they felt they had made up their minds on whether church law has been broken. Retired Bishop Alfred Gwinn Jr., who is presiding, reminded the gathering that this court represented a “Christian community coming together to resolve an issue.” He said serious issues had to be resolved in “fair and impartial” ways to ensure “integrity of process.” Witnesses would not take oaths because they are “called to a standard higher than the oath,” Gwinn said of the church hearing. Gwinn asked each of the first 23 potential jurors whether they had any “bias, prejudice or opinions” about the involved parties that would prevent them from fairly trying the case. He then asked the same question about their understanding of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. The bishop when dismissing  jurors inquired about involvement in the same-sex marriage of two men at Arch Street United Methodist on Nov. 9. He stipulated the privacy of their identity would be respected but two of the potential jurors were dismissed. After the jurors were seated, Gwinn explained to them that both sides of the trials had agreed to two facts. First, Schaefer had performed a same-sex ceremony that involved his son and partner in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on April 28, 2007.  Second, Schaefer signed a certificate of marriage that stated he “solemnized the marriage” and that he was ordained United Methodist clergy of The United Methodist Church.

Schaefer declared “not guilty” to both of the charges he faces, which fall under the 2004 Book of Discipline. He is accused of violating these two parts of Paragraph 2702.1: (b) practices declared by The United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings,15 including but not limited to: being a self-avowed practicing homosexual; or conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies;** (d) disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church.

Counsel for the church, The Rev. Christopher Fisher, told jurors in his opening that the trial was meant to address whether Schaefer had violated church policy as stated in The United Methodist Book of Discipline. Fisher said the trial arose out of a complaint filed by Jon Boger, a life-long member of Zion United Methodist Church in Iona, Pa., and a parishioner in Schaefer’s church. Fisher told the jury that Boger “was dismayed to learn that his pastor may have done something to violate the discipline.” Boger filed with Bishop Peggy Johnson of the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual (regional) Conference 26 days before the statute of limitations expired and he is a potential witness in the trial. Counsel for Schaefer, the Rev. Robert G. Coombe, defended Schaefer, calling him a trained and well-practiced clergy person who had carried out his ministry with compassion and grace. “Frank’s crime is that he prayed God’s blessing upon the love and commitment of two people,” he said. It was not anyone, but his son, Coombe said. “He preaches God’s love for everyone, then he had to extend that love to his own son. “Frank does not deny that he performed the ceremony,” said Coombe. “He did this wedding as an act of love” detailing that the ceremony was private, 300 miles away in a commonwealth where same-sex unions were legal. Schaeffer had informed his superiors, but not his congregation.

* Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]Martini is a freelance writer based in Glen Mills, Pa.

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